Proven star power was a scarce commodity at last year's Chicago Blues Festival. The shortage was so acute that Buddy Guy--the only household name in the lineup--told the local press he was less than impressed with his costars. He even remarked that the annual festival might benefit from charging a small fee for the prime seats at Petrillo Music Shell--a proposition previously championed by more than a few blues insiders, but never by someone wielding Guy's clout.
For his candor Guy was admonished by the Sun-Times editorial board, which more or less told the guitarist to shut up and play. But if those editors had known even a little about the event's history, they wouldn't have been so quick to take criticism of the festival as blasphemy. They might've even arrived at the same conclusion Guy had: the Chicago Blues Festival's once-dazzling talent lineup had slipped noticeably.
Luckily Guy's comments seem to have elicited a better response from the festival's bookers: a lack of marquee names isn't a problem with this year's edition (the 15th, for those keeping score). The big coup is a reunion of Ray Charles with his seminal horn section of the 50s and 60s on Thursday evening; a similar event at the Chicago Jazz Festival some years back rewarded an overflow crowd with genuinely sterling music. Though he understandably balks at setting himself up as an oldies act, the Genius can still set the house on fire with "I've Got a Woman" and "Hallelujah I Love Her So" when the spirit strikes him. His presence--and that of Charles Brown, Joe Louis Walker, Ruth Brown, and Tyrone Davis--should easily obliterate the memory of last year's forgettable roster.
The whole shebang is in Grant Park as always, spread over four days for the second year in a row, and it's still completely free to the public. There are again four stages, three of which are booked only during the afternoon: the Juke Joint, geared to intimate acoustic sets; the midsize Front Porch, featuring mostly traditional artists; and the larger Crossroads, spotlighting contemporary electric bands. Petrillo Music Shell is the main stage, with major events each evening.
Front Porch Stage
2:00 PM Blues in the Schools Jugband Music
Featuring Billy Branch & Roy Hytower
Without a doubt the hottest harpist in town, Branch has the chops to indulge in showy barrages of clustered notes but prefers to let tradition and taste dictate his sets. Given his busy schedule as leader of the popular band Sons of Blues, how he finds time to pass his wisdom on to schoolchildren is a mystery. But he does, and as always, the fest opener will be a heartwarming opportunity for his students to strut their stuff, abetted this year by guitarist
Hytower (see below).
3:30 PM Remembering Jimmy Yancey with Erwin Helfer & Ann Rabson
Helfer's an unsung hero of Chicago blues, a pianist who can pound out anything from boogie to Bach and a teacher who's inspired almost everyone in these parts who's serious about playing blues keyboards. Along with Rabson, of Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women (see below), he'll honor Yancey, a blues pioneer who paid the bills by working as a groundskeeper at the old Comiskey.
5:00 PM Blues Kids of America
Another bunch of students from local schools, belting out the blues under the direction of guitarist Fernando Jones. Eighth-grader Pierre Robinson handles the lead vocals for the pubescent aggregation, which was 65 strong at its fest performance last year.
3:00 PM Johnnie Bassett
My favorite album so far this year is Detroit guitarist Bassett's confidently swinging Cadillac Blues (Cannonball). His concise hollow-body sound is traditional, but he's no throwback--he's actually a hallowed veteran of the Motor City's 50s blues explosion. Often teamed with pianist Joe Weaver, Bassett was an invaluable member of the house band at the shoestring Fortune label, which was responsible for Andre Williams's riotous early singles, and later he did some early sessions with Smokey Robinson's Miracles at Motown. Bassett's current band, the Blues Insurgents--whose core members are organist Chris Codish and drummer R.J. Spangler--lays down fat, Hammond-heavy grooves that fit his timeless sound to a tee.
4:30 PM Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women
Frankly, the appeal of this east-coast trio is lost on me. Judging from the success of its numerous albums for Alligator, though, it has found a loyal audience for its acoustic pseudo blues. Pianist Ann Rabson and guitarist Gaye Adegbalola, Saffire's cofounders, are adequate at best on their instruments, and their material, much of which details the trials of growing older (e.g., "Silver Beaver"), is meant to be witty but usually comes off trite.
JUKE JOINT STAGE
2:30 PM Gaye Adegbalola & Andra Faye
The guitarist and bass player from Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women (see above) step out on their own.
3:30 PM Harmonica Hinds
On a circuit clogged with pretenders, local vet Hinds deserves a higher profile. But despite some impressive credentials, including session work behind Koko Taylor and John Primer, he remains relatively obscure. On vocals he's a mite stiff, but on the harp he's as fine and flexible a 50s stylist as you'll find practicing today.
5:00 PM Roy Hytower
During the late 60s guitarist Hytower made fine Chicago soul 45s for local labels like Expo and Brainstorm, and in 1969 he got one shot on Mercury's Blue Rock subsidiary; "I'm in Your Corner" really should have been a hit. These days Hytower's as apt to portray late blues and soul luminaries like Muddy Waters and Otis Redding on the musical-theater circuit as to perform under his own name, and that's a pity--the Root Doctor himself, with his light-fingered jazz-tinged guitar strokes and soul-streaked vocals, is the real live thing.
PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL
6:00 PM Pinetop Perkins & Willie "Big Eyes" Smith
From the rate at which he's churning out CDs (three in the last year alone), you might mistake Pinetop Perkins for a wet-behind-the-ears whippersnapper hell-bent on making his reputation. But the 84-year-old dean of Chicago blues pianists was born and bred in Mississippi and spent more than a decade in Muddy Waters's band, where he replaced Otis Spann in 1969. He followed that with a stint in the Legendary Blues Band before finally stepping out as a leader in the 1980s. On his forthcoming Sweet Black Angel (Verve), Perkins delivers a batch of unfamiliar tunes for a change, and though the usual romping boogies are in evidence, he shows he can smolder as well as blaze. He'll be joined for this set by drummer Smith, another alum of Waters's outfit.
7:00 PM Charles Brown
Though an argument could be made that Brown, not Ray Charles, should be headlining this bill, booking the elegant pianist earlier makes sense historically: prior to forging his groundbreaking blend of blues and gospel in the mid-50s, Charles cut a slew of sides for Swing Time Records that uncannily imitated Brown's mellow after-hours approach. Brown's heyday was in the late 40s and early 50s, when jazzy, sophisticated blues ballads were all the rage on the west coast. He hails from Texas but made his name in the lounges of Los Angeles just after World War II--initially as front man for guitarist Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, whose "Drifting Blues" devoured the R & B charts in 1946, and later on his own. (His "Black Night" was number one on the same charts for 14 weeks in 1951.) A huge influence on not only the Genius but also his west-coast contemporaries Floyd Dixon and Amos Milburn, Brown has lived through some lean times, but thanks in part to Bonnie Raitt's advocacy, he's undergoing a renaissance. Unlike most of his few surviving peers, Brown remains in peak form; his ultrapolished band features guitarist Danny Caron's Moore-influenced riffs.
:25 PM The Golden Anniversary
Featuring Hank Crawford, David "Fathead" Newman, LeRoy Cooper, Philip Guilbeau, Mable John & Ray Charles
Although Ray Charles began his career some 50 years ago by imitating Charles Brown, over the next two decades he'd go on to practically invent a genre: he
dramatically altered the face of pop, injecting it with gospel to help lay the foundation for soul. Although his gritty piano playing and remarkably expressive vocals, on everything from tender, heartbreaking ballads like "What Would I Do Without You" to the sexually charged "What'd I Say," spearheaded this musical revolution, without the troops to back him up Charles might have ended up a footnote to blues history instead of one of its authors. This special anniversary concert recognizes some of those loyal soldiers: saxophonists Hank Crawford, Dave "Fathead" Newman, and Leroy Cooper, plus trumpeter Philip Guilbeau and Mable John, a former member of Charles's legendary female backing group, the Raelettes. While Charles's greatest glories are well behind him, this reunion still promises to be a hell of a show. --Peter Margasak
FRONT PORCH STAGE
1:00 PM Blues in the Schools Featuring Billy Branch
3:00 PM Sunnyland Slim Memorial Piano Set
Featuring the Big Four Reunion & David Maxwell Sunnyland Slim was the patriarch of Chicago blues piano for decades, and prior to his death in 1995 his thundering ivories and rumbling vocals were a perennial fest attraction. Unfortunately this reunion of his longtime backing band, the Big Four, can't be complete: honey-voiced drummer Robert Covington died ten months after Sunnyland. But saxist Sam Burckhardt has a loftier local profile than ever as leader of the Big Swing, bassist Bob Stroger remains rock solid, and guitarist Steve Freund (see below) will come home from California. Kenny Smith fills in ably for Covington, but nobody--not even Maxwell, whose two-fisted piano style, sharpened by decades accompanying the likes of Freddie King and James Cotton--can really replace Sunnyland.
5:00 PM Fruteland Jackson
Though he studied in our urban midst, at Columbia College and Roosevelt University, educator and guitarist Jackson began playing in Mississippi, and he's a card-carrying member of the growing fraternity of younger blues artists embracing the music's acoustic roots. He does have a knack for applying the conventions to contemporary subjects--he's even written a song about the 1992 Loop flood.
2:00 Pm Carl Weathersby
For Chicago blues to avoid degenerating into a totally tourist-driven sideshow in the new millennium, it desperately needs an infusion of new blood (not to mention a moratorium on the performance of "Sweet Home Chicago"). If guitarist Weathersby, until recently one of Billy Branch's Sons of Blues, is the next Chicago bluesman to make a name for himself nationally, it'll be a step in the right direction. Weathersby's muscular guitar style bears the mark of Albert King, but his aggressive fingerpicked licks are largely his own, and he sings with the soulful intensity of a veteran.
4:00 PM Chico Banks
If Weathersby represents hope for the future of Chicago blues, Chico Banks exemplifies what's wrong with the present. Technically he's an admirable player, but he needs to prove it all the time, stoking his over-the-top pyrotechnics with too much wah-wah and then pumping them through an arena-rock setup.
JUKE JOINT STAGE
2:00 PM Joe Louis Walker & Robert Jr. Lockwood
Guitarist Lockwood learned the basics from his mother's boyfriend--none other than the immortal Robert Johnson--then made his own mark on the blues with a swinging, jazzy style that served him well in hundreds of classic sessions for Chess and other local labels in the 50s. Though until recently he hadn't made a lot of records under his own name, he's backed Little Walter, Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Boyd, and others. Now 83, he's adopted the 12-string electric guitar as his instrument of choice, and while he's likely to break into a jaunty swing with plenty of space for improvising, his homages to Johnson are as haunting as ever. The much younger Walker (see below), a Bay Area mainstay, invited Lockwood to guest on his acclaimed Great Guitars for Verve last year, and Walker returns the favor on Lockwood's new set for the same firm, I Got to Find Me a Woman. Watching them interact in this intimate acoustic setting should be like eavesdropping on old friends.
3:30 pm Fruteland Jackson
5:00 PM Steve Freund
Chicago's loss was California's gain when Big Four guitarist Freund split town in 1994. He's a modern powerhouse, with a singular string-bending style, yet he's fluent in all manner of traditional electric blues--how often do you hear vintage Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee on the north side anymore?
6:00 PM Carl Weathersby & Chico Banks
Two resolutely electric guitarists (see above) in an acoustic setting.
PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL
6:00 PM Jimmy Dawkins
Once upon a time they called Dawkins "Fast Fingers"--the nickname even became the title of the guitarist's first (and best) album, released by Delmark in 1969. But Dawkins never much liked the moniker, and really, it wasn't all that accurate: he came up in the same west-side school as Magic Sam, Freddie King, Luther Allison, and Eddy Clearwater, where economy and imagination counted for more than blinding speed. As a vocalist, Dawkins has evolved considerably over the decades, but he still suffers from a static stage presence that may blunt his edge on a massive platform like Petrillo.
7:00 PM Joe Louis Walker
With Special Guests Steve Cropper & Scotty Moore
Walker used to be one of the best-kept secrets in blues, but nowadays his stunning guitar work and roaring vocals seem to be garnering the acclaim they deserve--thanks in part to his guest-star-studded 1997 album, Great Guitars. Walker's joined here by two more of the players from that summit, Booker T. & the MG's guitarist Steve Cropper, whose twangy, insistent rhythm licks distinguished virtually every hit Memphis's Stax label had in the 60s, and Elvis Presley's legendary ax man, Scotty Moore, who's recently come out of retirement to hit the road.
:25 PM Otis Rush
Rush's seminal 1958 tune "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)" defined west-side blues: alternating between minor-key rumba and blazing up-tempo swing, the guitarist nearly flies apart at the seams. To this day, he can make the hair stand up on the back of my neck with his wonderfully quavery string bends and tortured shrieks. Rush's frequent main-stage appearances at the festival have showcased his eccentricities as much as his talent: during a tribute to T-Bone Walker in 1990, the temperamental southpaw chided his capable Texas sidemen onstage. But a full-length set with his own combo in 1995 was devastatingly good. Though the recent dismissal of that entire band may set him back a bit, when he's on there's still no better blues guitarist in this city.
FRONT PORCH STAGE
1:00 PM Fat Possum
Eye Scratchers & Ball Kickers Tour
The Mississippi label Fat Possum has discovered one raw old Delta bluesman after another--although "discovered" might not be the best word. All the artists on this triple bill are at least 60 and have been playing the blues since before Matthew Johnson, who runs Fat Possum, was even born. The ferocious T-Model Ford whomped all over a packed Double Door crowd a few months back, but Chicago hasn't had the chance to see Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early or Robert Cage before. On Takes One to Know One singer-guitarist Williams and harmonica-tootin' drummer Early alternate between ambling grooves and go-for-broke stompers, with soulful vocals just out of whack enough to let you know that, for these guys, salvation is still out of reach. If Early's name rings a bell, that's because he used to front Hezekiah & the House Rockers, whose one album, made for Highwater in the 80s, is legendary for its weirdness alone. On Cage's recent debut, Robert Cage Can See What You're Doing, his gentle songs, highlighted by country melodies, recall the preblues songster style of people like Henry Thomas and Blind Boy Fuller.
3:00 PM Homesick James & Henry Townsend
Slide guitarist John William Henderson, aka Homesick James, earned his enduring nickname from a side he cut for Chicago's Chance label in 1953. Around the same time he played in his cousin Elmore James's band, and today he still exhibits more than a hint of Elmore's crashing attack in his slide work. The 88-year-old Townsend, who plays both piano and guitar, recorded as early as 1929 for Columbia, leading Saint Louis's rise as a prewar blues capital. Between them Townsend and Homesick boast nearly two centuries on this earth, and the great majority of that time has been spent playing the blues.
5:00 PM David "Honeyboy" Edwards & Friends
It's an exciting time for this Chicago blues guitarist, one of the last living links to Robert Johnson and a pioneer in his own right. Despite a historic 1942 recording made for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax, Honeyboy is only now getting his due: last year, with the help of Janis Martinson and Michael Frank, he wrote his autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, a collection of colorful stories about his running partners Big Joe Williams, Robert Johnson, and Little Walter and his own adventures as an itinerant bluesman. Much like Homesick James, Honeyboy changes chords whenever he damn pleases, so his sidemen need uncommonly open ears. Today his onstage friends include Rick "Cookin'" Sherry on harmonica, Sam Lay on drums, and Barrelhouse Chuck on piano.
1:30 PM Little Bobby & Spice
Until a few months ago Little Bobby Neely held down the tenor sax spot in Otis Rush's band. It was a longstanding association; the Tennessee native played behind Rush on the guitarist's 1960 Chess classic "So Many Roads, So Many Trains." Buddy Guy also employed Neely for a stretch in the 50s and 60s. Now Neely, a respectable singer and muscular horn man capable of dishing out tough blues or sizzling R & B, is out in front of his own combo, Spice.
3:30 PM Deitra Farr & Johnny Rawls
Farr doesn't go in for the red-hot-mama trappings that so many younger blueswomen abuse; her sturdy, engaging delivery, honed over more than two decades, is all she needs to be one of the top female blues singers in town. Farr fronted Mississippi Heat for a time, but she was a familiar presence long before that. Since 1996 she's been out on her own again, and her solo debut, for the British label JSP, is a high point on her resume. She's joined by Johnny Rawls, a talented, soul-influenced singer and multi-instrumentalist who produced and played on her album--and has made a few of his own, including a 1994 gem with former partner L.C. Luckett.
JUKE JOINT STAGE
2:00 PM Carey Bell & David "Honeyboy" Edwards
Though he comes from the Little Walter/Big Walter Horton school of amplified blues-harmonica wailing, Bell (see below) should do fine with the hard-to-follow Edwards; the two have shared stages intermittently for decades.
3:30 PM Fat Possum
Eye Scratchers & Ball Kickers Tour
5:00 PM Homesick James & Henry Townsend
5:30 PM Olu Dara
Cornetist Dara's name will likely be unfamiliar to even devoted blues fans--though some may know his son, the rapper Nas. That's because Dara's experience is mostly in jazz--he's worked with Art Blakey, Henry Threadgill, Sam Rivers, and James "Blood" Ulmer, and was featured in Robert Altman's Kansas City. But Dara was born in Natchez, Mississippi, the heart of blues country, and elements of the idiom--along with African and Caribbean rhythms--permeate the two whimsically named New York bands he leads, the Okra Orchestra and the Natchezsippi Dance Band. Here he'll be playing with a quintet.
PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL
5:00 PM Carey Bell
Bell picked up his harmonica tricks from the unrivaled masters, but he's added a few mouth-organ moves of his own in a career that's encompassed everything from gigs on Maxwell Street to spots behind Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and today his soaring, full-bodied harp licks are as readily identifiable as those of the two revered Walters. He's also sired a cadre of blues-playing sons, most notably Lurrie Bell, and with two well-received Alligator LPs to his credit, he's on a roll.
6:15 PM Texas Johnny Brown
This guitarist's revelatory but all-too-brief Crossroads set a couple years ago left many die-hards wondering, Where's he been all these years? Back in 1949, when he was with Amos Milburn's Chickenshackers, Brown made one fine single for Atlantic, but he seemed to vanish not long after. Actually, he was toiling in anonymity as a session musician for Duke/Peacock Records in Houston, adding impeccable licks to the output of Bobby "Blue" Bland and Junior Parker in the late 50s and early 60s. He's just reemerged with a long-overdue debut album of his own, Nothin' but the Truth (Choctaw Creek), which shows off his crisp, classy playing as well as a previously undocumented smooth-soul croon. With Petrillo to stretch out on, Brown is likely to be one of the festival's highlights.
7:30 PM Olu Dara
:20 PM Ruth Brown
They called Atlantic Records "the house that Ruth built" during the early 50s, and indeed, her saucy, sensual "Teardrops From My Eyes," "5-10-15 Hours," "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean," and "Oh, What a Dream" kept the label's name at the top of the R & B charts throughout that period. But rock 'n' roll came along and toppled her throne, and in 1961 Atlantic dumped her. The next couple decades weren't kind to Brown, but like any champion, she mounted a comeback; her campaign has stretched to include Broadway, TV, and film. Her latest CD, R+B=Ruth Brown (Bullseye Blues), is one of her finest contemporary efforts, with sharp edges to match her Atlantic catalog. And she brings to the stage a majesty that only comes from hard-won experience.
FRONT PORCH STAGE
1:00 PM Michael Roach & Jerry Ricks
As a player on the small Philadelphia folk-blues scene in the early 60s, guitarist Ricks learned from the very best--Lightnin' Hopkins, Brownie McGhee, Mississippi John Hurt, and Son House--as they came through town. Now a Mississippian, he remains dedicated to exploring and expanding the acoustic blues tradition. Roach, an acoustic guitarist from D.C. who's studied with Ricks as well as east coasters John Jackson and John Cephas, isn't a revivalist either--his 1993 album, Ain't Got Me No Home, includes treatises on his D.C. 'hood and homelessness--though there is a Piedmont texture to his playing.
3:00 PM Strate Ahead Jazz Band Tribute to the Classics
Seems there's one booking at every Blues Fest that leaves everyone scratching their heads; say hello to this year's baffler.
4:30 PM Kelly Joe Phelps
On last year's Roll Away the Stone (Rykodisc), singer-guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps showcased his formidable country-blues chops, both on originals and on classics by Skip James and Blind Lemon Jefferson. He's also worked with folkies like Greg Brown and Townes Van Zandt, and his fluency in that idiom is what separates this youngster from neotraditionalist contemporaries like Corey Harris.
1:30 PM Shemekia Copeland
Alligator boss Bruce Iglauer calls Copeland "the next great blues singer in the country." Granted, he's prejudiced--Copeland, the 19-year-old daughter of late Texas blues guitarist Johnny, just made her debut album, Turn the Heat Up, for Alligator. But in fact this young lady from Harlem is quite a find. Her pure belting comes straight from the heart, with no rasp or affectation, and she's uncommonly versatile for a singer of any age, moving comfortably from pump-ing soul to smoky blues ballads.
3:30 PM Robert Jr. Lockwood
JUKE JOINT STAGE
2:30 PM Kelly Joe Phelps
3:30 PM Michael Roach
4:30 PM Jerry Ricks
PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL
5:00 PM Nolan Struck & King Edward
Though he had one of the most distinctive--and high-pitched--voices on the blues scene here in the 60s, Louisiana-born Struck never quite parlayed his talent into stardom. Starting out as the bassist for Lonnie Brooks (his ticket to Chicago), Struck recorded scattered dates for One-derful!, Shama, and ICT; in 1973 his eerie "Welfare Problems" scored a fair amount of airplay. Struck and his brother, guitarist King Edward, recorded an album not too long ago for Paula; the kind of musical telepathy it displayed could only come from siblings.
6:30 PM Toni Lynn Washington
Boston-based singer Washington has been around, touring with Jackie Wilson and Sam & Dave. But she's only had a national presence since 1995, when Tone-Cool issued her debut album, Blues at Midnight. The follow-up, It's My Turn Now, is a tough collection to ignore, mostly originals thick with swinging, horn-
leavened jump rhythms that her voice skips through with ease. But Washington's by no means a backward-looking chanteuse: an uncompromising "It's Too Late" and her funky revival of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's droll "You Can Stay but the Noise Must Go" feature stinging contemporary guitar work by Tim Gearan, who wrote three of the set's standout tracks.
:00 PM Tyrone Davis
No soul singer pleads more convincingly than Tyrone Davis. On his 1969 chart topper "Can I Change My Mind" and the 1970 million seller "Turn Back the Hands of Time," both cut for the Dakar label, he begs so passionately for one last chance at love that only the hardest heart could refuse him. The crossover audience those tunes brought Davis at the time was such that he lip-synched several of his hits on American Bandstand. Mentored by local notable Harold Burrage, Davis rose through the ranks to become a consistent R & B hit maker throughout the 70s, his image as an ultrasmooth balladeer with throngs of swooning female fans growing as the decade progressed. He now usually sings over the silky grooves of the Platinum Band, a huge, brassy, boundlessly energetic outfit led by guitarist Kenneth "Hollywood" Scott.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ray Charles photo by James Crump RSP; Blues in the Schools photo by James Fraher; Johnnie Bassett photo by Robert Barclay; Charles Brown photo by Carol Friedman; Robert Jr. Lockwood photo by James Fraher; Homesick James photo by Marc PoKempner; Carey Bell photo by James Fraher; Ruth Brown photo by Mark PoKempner; Texas Johnny Brown photo by James Fraher; Shemekia Copeland photo by Joseph Rosen..